“I know you are, but what am I?” is not only a time-honored playground rejoinder, it’s also one of Donald Trump’s favorite arguments. Hillary Clinton started the racist birther conspiracy, said America’s most prominent birther. She’s “crooked,” said the most corrupt president in U.S. history. I didn’t conspire with the Russians, the Democrats conspired with the Russians. I’m not a racist, Rep. Elijah Cummings is a racist.
When Trump made that last charge against Cummings in the midst of a days-long attack on the congressman’s city of Baltimore and everyone who lives there, some people found it puzzling. What the hell was Trump talking about? He didn’t even bother to explain.
But he didn’t have to, because if you didn’t immediately understand, he wasn’t talking to you.
Trump was talking directly to his base, for whom discussions about race have a particular resonance and a particular dynamic. As someone who spends hours every day watching Fox News, Trump is tuned directly into the discussion of race that occurs on that platform and elsewhere in conservative media; he knows it well. As much as liberals are concerned with racism and the operation of racist systems, exposure to that media would convince you that, in American politics today it is actually conservatives who spend the most time thinking about race.
For the uninitiated, here are the some of the main features of the racial narrative Fox and other conservative outlets weave:
- Actual racial discrimination against African Americans and other minorities is largely a thing of the past.
- The most common victims of racial discrimination today are white people, who are regularly elbowed aside by minorities given government benefits they don’t deserve.
- Liberals constantly accuse conservatives of being racist with zero justification, an accusation that can be impossible to refute.
- When minorities criticize government policy, it shows they are unpatriotic and “ungrateful.”
- People of color are held back by their own pathologies.
- Democrats are The Real Racists, which is proven by the fact that their party was pro-slavery during the Civil War and many 20th-century segregationists were Democrats.
Let’s not forget what the trigger was for Trump’s Twitter rant about Baltimore being “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” It was, of course, a Fox News segment meant to invoke precisely that disgust. When Trump called Cummings (D-Md.) a racist, he was activating this entire narrative in the minds of his most ardent supporters, saying to them: You’re the victims here, and those people don’t have any right to criticize us.
Of course, racial revanchism was always at the core of Trump’s political project. For years conservatives had been told to feel angry by immigration, by social change and by “political correctness,” i.e., annoying liberals telling you to treat others with politeness and respect even if you don’t like them. Trump took all that anger and unleashed it by saying that you no longer have to feel constrained. You can let out all the feelings people have been telling you to tamp down and revel in your liberation. Put on that MAGA hat, chant “Lock her up!” and “Send them back!” and bathe yourself in liberal tears.
We should say here that on occasion some liberals are indeed too quick to charge conservatives with saying racist things. However often you think those excesses actually occur, what cannot be disputed is that conservatives have come to believe they are absolutely constant and fear that any expression of conservative ideas will be met with the accusation of racism.
Within the tightest circle of Fox obsessives, there is no ambivalence about any of this. But as you move outward from there, people’s feelings get more complicated. And Trump, by being so obviously racist, makes it difficult to keep insisting that all accusations of racism are unfair.
Yet he did other Republicans a temporary favor by calling Cummings a racist, because they could find safe harbor in asserting that neither Trump nor Cummings is in fact a racist, something one after another of them is now saying with evident relief at the ability to sound magnanimous while continuing to support the president their own constituents love.
They’re worried, though, because the possibility for backlash is real. Not only is Trump getting his opponents as activated as his supporters (if not more), evidence is growing that he’s alienating some of the very people he thinks he’s appealing to, not to mention other groups such as suburban women whose votes could be up for grabs in 2020. You can tell how desperately many Republicans wish he’d change the subject.
But he won’t. Trump believes he is winning, because he’s getting attention and giving his core supporters what they want. He turns on Fox News and sees good friends Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro amplify his arguments and tell him that he’s a genius executing a masterful strategy.
Which is why it’s likely that we’ll be repeating this cycle over and over between now and November 2020: Trump gets mad at a Democrat, he sees something on Fox that makes his blood boil, he tweets something racist, Democrats express their outrage, some Republicans try to explain it away while others back him up, the whole ugly mess dominates the news for a few days before finally fading — and then a couple of weeks later we do it all again.
The president believes that the endless repetition of that cycle will guarantee his victory. He believes that white people are motivated by racial animus, by resentment and fear, by anger and hate, and only by bringing those emotions to the fore will he be reelected. He accuses others of hating America, but this is his odious vision of who Americans are, at least the only Americans who matter to him. If only we could be confident that he’s wrong.